Guest Host: John Donvan

A man carries one of the newly arrived boxes containing seeds from Japan and USA into the international gene bank Svalbard Global Seed Vault (SGSV), outside Longyearbyen on Spitsbergen, Norway, on March 1.

A man carries one of the newly arrived boxes containing seeds from Japan and USA into the international gene bank Svalbard Global Seed Vault (SGSV), outside Longyearbyen on Spitsbergen, Norway, on March 1.

North of the Arctic Circle, deep inside a mountain in Norway, there’s a tunnel carved into the rock. It leads to a big room with subzero temperatures, filled with shelf upon shelf of boxes that hold hundreds of seeds from all over the planet. It’s called the Global Seed Vault, founded by conservationist Cary Fowler in 2008 to collect and protect seed samples from all over the world. Today, the vault holds more than 800,000 samples. For this month’s Environmental Outlook: Guest host John Donvan talks with the “father” of The Global Seed Vault about its role in protecting the world’s food supply from political upheaval and climate change.


  • Cary Fowler Executive director, Global Crop Diversity Trust; visiting Scholar, Stanford University and vice-chair, Rhodes College Board of Trustees

Read An Excerpt

Reprinted with permission.

Seeds On Ice by wamu885 on Scribd


  • 11:06:54

    MR. JOHN DONVANThank you for joining us. I'm John Donvan, the moderator of The Intelligence Squared US Debate, sitting in for Diane Rehm. For the past eight years, a place called the Global Seed Vault has been collecting samples of seeds from all over the world and storing those seeds in a massive facility that is build 500 feet into an icy mountain near the North Pole. Now, this vault has already proven its worth, saving thousands of seeds that were going to be driven to extinction by the ongoing civil war in Syria. They were saved.

  • 11:07:26

    MR. JOHN DONVANIn a new book titled "Seeds On Ice," seed vault founder Cary Fowler explains how he convinced the Norwegian government to build this facility in the first place and how it's actually helping to protect the world's food supply from the effects of climate change. Cary Fowler joins me in the studio. Welcome, Cary.

  • 11:07:45

    MR. CARY FOWLERThanks, John. It's a treat to be with you.

  • 11:07:46

    DONVANAnd I want to let our listeners know that we'll be taking your comments and your questions throughout the hour. I would particularly like to hear from farmers, as we'll be discussing food and seed diversity, gardeners as well and just the curious. Our number is 800-433-8850 or you can send us your email at Join us also on Facebook or on Twitter. Cary Fowler, first of all, congratulations on the book "Seeds On Ice." It's right in front of me. It's a gorgeous -- actually, it's a picture book as well.

  • 11:08:21

    DONVANPhotographs not only of the project -- of the vault, but also the place in the world where it exists. You built this place. Okay, other people did the labor.

  • 11:08:34

    FOWLEROh, I hope so.

  • 11:08:35

    DONVANThe idea came out of your head and the notion of a cold room in the middle of a mountain north of the Arctic Circle sounds so improbably. Did you ever really think it was going to come to pass?

  • 11:08:51

    FOWLERNo, never. And it didn't come to pass because I or anyone else, you know, sat around waiting for an idea to parachute out of the heavens. We were really just a bunch of scientists trying to solve problems step by step.

  • 11:09:08

    DONVANWhat's your science?

  • 11:09:10

    FOWLERWell, my science is actually social sciences, but I've spent most of my life in the biological sciences working with seed banks around the world.

  • 11:09:18

    DONVANOkay. So I interrupted your flow so...

  • 11:09:20

    FOWLERNo. Well, I was really working with a fellow named Henry Shans (sp?) who was the head of the national seed bank in the United States in Fort Collins. And he and I had been working together trying to upgrade some of the facilities around the world, seed banks around the world, that were international facilities and we thought we'd done a pretty good job of that. And we were, in a sense, sitting there fat, dumb and happy and reveling over what good work had been done.

  • 11:09:46

    FOWLERAnd then, we realized where these seed banks were and they were in some pretty dangerous places, developing countries around the world, in Peru, in Philippines and Columbia and Nigeria and Ethiopia. My gosh, you know, something bad could happen in some of those countries. And the context, essentially, was that we were living in a post-9/11 and a post-Katrina world and we realized that bad things can happen to buildings and that's what seed banks are, essentially.

  • 11:10:17

    FOWLERAnd after Katrina, there were a lot of recriminations. You'll remember that people were saying, well, they knew that sooner or later a force five hurricane would hit and they knew that if it hit New Orleans, the levies wouldn't hold and they knew that there would be a disaster so why didn't they do something about it. And Henry and I essentially looked at each other and realized that they was us and so we needed to do something and we approached the Norwegian government with an idea.

  • 11:10:46

    DONVANWell, I want to get to that idea in a minute, but I want to stop for a moment and go to this term you've used now several times, seed bank. For me, that's one of those "who knew?" I mean, I didn't know that there was a concept such as a seed bank. The term sort of explains itself to me, but not really. What is a seed bank?

  • 11:11:06

    FOWLERA seed bank is a facility where typically governments or research institutions will conserve samples of different varieties of our agricultural crops. And they do that by drying the seed down to a low moisture content and freezing it. And if you do both of those things, you slow down the biological activity in the seed and you increase the longevity, the life expectancy of that seed. So most countries around the world will have seed banks where they will store samples.

  • 11:11:39

    DONVANGovernment-run, not a commercial entity then.

  • 11:11:40

    FOWLERAlmost always government run. And these seeds will be made available to plant breeders. In some case, farmers, but mostly to plant breeders to provide the raw material for plant breeding for the next variety of wheat or corn or whatever.

  • 11:11:57

    DONVANAnd as I pointed out, it's a government thing. Why? Why is it the government's business?

  • 11:12:02

    FOWLERI think it's the government's business because this is really a -- it's a global public good and no country is sitting on a range of diversity that will be adequate for even its own population, its own plant breeders, its own agricultural system in the future. I think the United States has something like 5 percent of the wheat samples in the world. Now, you know, those wheat samples are invaluable, but you don't know which one is going to be used in the future because you don't know what new disease or pest is going to come up, when a disease is going to mutate and require a new plant breeding solution for it.

  • 11:12:42

    FOWLERAnd so what you're sitting on in these seed banks are vast reservoirs of traits, essentially, genetic traits and you're hoping and thinking and expecting that those traits will be useful in the future. The collections are essentially options for the future and the more diversity we conserve, the more options we have for agriculture.

  • 11:13:04

    DONVANAnd how far back does seed banks of this model go?

  • 11:13:07

    FOWLERI guess there began to be some really dedicated collections assembled and conserved back in the teens and '20s and particularly...

  • 11:13:19

    DONVANOf the 20th century?

  • 11:13:19

    FOWLERYes. Particularly in Russia. Scientist named Vavilov started to assemble global collections for plant breeding purposes.

  • 11:13:28

    DONVANHe -- so he would've been under the Soviets then.

  • 11:13:30

    FOWLERYes, yes.

  • 11:13:32

    DONVANSo it sounds like Lenin and Stalin thought this was a good idea?

  • 11:13:35

    FOWLERWell, maybe Lenin did. Stalin certainly didn't because...

  • 11:13:38


  • 11:13:39

    FOWLER...because Vavilov ran afoul of Lysenko and Stalin. Lysenko believed in the inheritance of acquired characteristics and Vavilov, the head of the seed bank there, was a geneticist and he was imprisoned during the war. And the irony is -- and the seed bank, by the way, was in Leningrad-St. Petersburg surrounded by -- for 900 days by the Nazis. Hundreds of thousands of people starved to death. And in this seed bank, there were something like 12 or 13 people, staff members, who essentially starved to death rather than eat the seeds that they were protecting.

  • 11:14:19

    FOWLERThe rice curator died at his desk of a starvation-related disease with bags of rice on the desk. And clearly, he could've eaten them, but he realized the importance of diversity, of maintaining this diversity.

  • 11:14:34

    DONVANI'm wondering about that choice, actually. And I’m not saying it in a sarcastic way. That's an extraordinary thing for him have left behind a few bags of rice so that posterity could have them, rather than saving himself.

  • 11:14:47

    FOWLERThat's right, yep.

  • 11:14:49

    DONVANDo you think he made the right call?

  • 11:14:50

    FOWLEROh, absolutely. The staff in that center were our heroes to all of us who work in this field and I think the humbling part of that story is that we, as individuals, and as society aren't called upon to give our lives for future generations, to save this diversity. We have much easier ways of doing it if we'll just muster the will.

  • 11:15:14

    DONVANI still want to get to the story of the seed vaults, but this part's interesting so we'll keep going on this up to the break.

  • 11:15:20


  • 11:15:21

    DONVANYou've made several references to the notion of diversity and the argument being that by preserving these seeds, we're preserving a whole set of genetic traits to be pulled down and used, I guess, through breeding when needed. Why is that diversity important for human kind? I mean, why is the diversity of seed important for human kind?

  • 11:15:44

    FOWLERWell, our agricultural crops are like any other living thing. They need to evolve. They can't just stand still. The pest and diseases that attack our agricultural crops every year are not in the business themselves of becoming extinct. They're actually in the business of mounting ever more potent attacks against our food crops. So we have to keep up with that. In a sense, we're -- it's the red queen strategy from looking, you know, through the looking glass of Louis Carroll. We have to run faster and faster just to keep up.

  • 11:16:15

    FOWLERAnd our domesticated crops, their evolution, their improvement, their survival is in our hands. So we may think that when we go to the grocery store that the bread loaf that we typically buy is made with the same variety of wheat as 15 or 20 years ago, but I assure you it is not.

  • 11:16:33


  • 11:16:34

    FOWLERYes, because the varieties that farmers use in the field are constantly changing. They're constantly being updated to make them more resilient.

  • 11:16:43

    DONVANDo the farmers know that or are they just picking up what's available for seed?

  • 11:16:48

    FOWLERNo, the farmers are quite well aware and they spend a lot of time trying to figure out which variety they're going to plant next year, 'cause they place a big bet every spring.

  • 11:16:57

    DONVANAnd is this dynamic of crops falling afoul of changes in the rest of the world, the needing this diversity, is this a new and accelerating phenomenon?

  • 11:17:07

    FOWLERNo, not at all. I mean, you know, the reason that I'm here and my Fowler ancestors are here is that in the 1840s, there was a big potato famine in Ireland and the reason for that is a complicated story, but one of the reasons, a biological reason is that potatoes are native to the Andes and only a few varieties, i.e. very little diversity, made it over to England where it became a dominant food crop, particularly in Ireland for the poor.

  • 11:17:37

    FOWLERBut a disease struck it and when that disease found the first potato plant in the field tasty, it found them all tasty and a couple million people died and a couple million more, including my ancestors and those of Reagan and Kennedy, immigrated to the United States.

  • 11:17:55

    DONVANWe're gonna cheer things up after the break. Talking to Cary Fowler, author of "Seeds On Ice" and he's going to be telling the story when we get back how he got that vault into that mountain north of the Arctic Circle. I'm John Donvan. You're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show."

  • 11:20:01

    DONVANWelcome back. I'm John Donvan, the moderator of the Intelligence Squared US debate, sitting in for Diane Rehm. And we're having a conversation with Cary Fowler, who is author of the book "Seeds on Ice" and a significant founder of the seed vault, the Arctic seed vault, which we're going to start to discuss now. So Cary, we've been talking about why seed banks exist, and you've explained for the sake of diversity going forward having the availability of genetic traits such that when -- when they're needed, various seeds can be inter-breeded to bring about traits such as cold resistance, resistance to pests, that sort of thing. So that's the purpose of these seed banks.

  • 11:20:44

    DONVANBut then there's this story of how you came up with this idea of building the mother of all seed banks, and you ended up going north of the Arctic Circle. The microphone is yours. What -- what happened?

  • 11:20:57

    FOWLERWell, we realized that there were problems and vulnerabilities in all seed banks around the world. We've had floods and fires that have harmed the seed bank in the Philippines, in Zambia there had been looting, Afghanistan and Iraq there were troubles there, obviously, during the war. All seed banks are vulnerable, and we were really tired of the steady, slow loss of diversity.

  • 11:21:26

    FOWLEROnce we lose a crop variety, we've lost it forever. It's as extinct as the dinosaurs. And any trait...

  • 11:21:33

    DONVANDoes that -- does that happen often?

  • 11:21:35

    FOWLEROh yeah, I think it happens virtually daily.

  • 11:21:36


  • 11:21:38

    FOWLERBecause we're sitting on huge amounts of diversity. In the seed value, in Svalbard, we have more than 150,000 unique varieties of wheat and more than 150,000 different kinds of rice and more than 35,000 types of beans. So the scale of this is immense. And the seed vault really operates -- it's not a museum. It is nice that we're collecting all of that diversity and saving it, and it makes a lot of people feel good, but it's not a museum. It's more like a library, in a way. It's a library of life.

  • 11:22:18

    DONVANAnd how did it get there?

  • 11:22:19

    FOWLERIt got there -- well we of course had to convince the Norwegian government to do something, which 10 years ago seemed like a pretty wild and crazy idea. We proposed or at least asked them the question, would you consider building such a facility. And they came to me to head the committee to figure out the answer to that question, and I assembled a committee, we looked into it, we came up with the plans for the facility, we proposed it to Norway, and wonderfully and explicably almost, they said, well, yes, how can we say no.

  • 11:22:56

    FOWLERIf this resource is so important, and we're the right place to have it, to have it preserved, well, okay, we'll do it.

  • 11:23:06

    DONVANSo why is Norway the right place?

  • 11:23:08

    FOWLERIt's the right place because it's very cold where we situated this seed vault.

  • 11:23:12

    DONVANWhich is where?

  • 11:23:12

    FOWLERIt's in Svalbard. It is about 1,300 miles north of Oslo. So if you go to the tip or northern Norway, you still have about 600 miles to go before you get to Svalbard. It's as far as north as you can fly on a regularly scheduled airplane in the world.

  • 11:23:33

    DONVANIs it an island?

  • 11:23:34

    FOWLERIt's an archipelago, so it's a group of islands up there, and it's the right place because it's remote, and we wanted it to be far away from the normal dangers of the world, but it had to be accessible, and the infrastructure in the little village that's close by is just world-class. So we could get a plane in and out to ship the seeds in.

  • 11:23:54

    FOWLERSo it was built at a cost of about $9 million, totally funded by Norway. And after it was built, we then of course had to go to seed banks around the world.

  • 11:24:08

    DONVANWell, before you get to that, how do you build a seed vault in the side of a mountain?

  • 11:24:12

    FOWLERIt's -- it's really a glorified tunnel, and so we brought up tunneling machinery from the mainland, and we tunneled about 130, 140 yards into the solid stone mountain, and we wanted to go that far back, by the way, because that's the coldest part of the mountain, and we knew we were going to have to freeze these seeds down to about minus-3, minus-4 Fahrenheit, but we wanted to start off with some free cold, free refrigeration, and we get that in the permafrost of this mountain, where it's a bit below freezing just normally.

  • 11:24:50

    DONVANAnd what does it look like? I mean, you've given me the picture of tunnel. So I walk down the tunnel. It's -- is my head touching the ceiling?

  • 11:24:57

    FOWLERNo, it's a -- it's a pretty tall tunnel.

  • 11:25:00


  • 11:25:00

    FOWLERAnd it's -- it's very Spartan. It's not an antiseptic, laboratory kind of situation. And you go through a number of locked doors, and by the time you get to the actual seed vault room, you've gone through, well, quite a few locked doors, and you open that up, and you'll be hit with a blast of cold air because it's very -- it's very cold there. And you're really looking at a large room that's about 90 feet long, about 30 feet wide and maybe 15 feet tall.

  • 11:25:28

    FOWLERIt's chiseled out of solid stone, but we put concrete -- just sprayed concrete on the walls to make the -- make it a little bit lighter.

  • 11:25:37

    DONVANYou have fluorescent lights in there?

  • 11:25:40

    FOWLERYeah, yeah, it's like a warehouse, in a way. We have boxes of seeds from all different countries. I think we're up to something -- well the seeds themselves were originally sourced from 232 countries, and we have samples of more than 850,000 unique crop varieties.

  • 11:25:57


  • 11:25:58

    FOWLERIncluding a lot of varieties, a lot of crops that I've never heard of, frankly.

  • 11:26:03

    DONVANSo I've seen photographs in your book. It's just, you know, industrial shelving and plastic crates.

  • 11:26:08

    FOWLERIt is. Well, we wanted to make it very practical because we wanted it to be cheap to run and sustainable. We didn't want it to need a lot of human intervention or fancy technology, and that's what we achieved. It's -- it is very cheap to run it, and the funding for it is provide by an endowment that the Global Crop Diversity Trust, which I used to head, has. It costs a couple hundred thousand dollars a year to run. And it's probably the cheapest insurance policy for anything of that value on Earth.

  • 11:26:41

    FOWLERI want to start going to some of our listeners on the phone and on Twitter and on Facebook, but just before we do it, just a little bit of a picture, 30 seconds on when you walk out of the tunnel, and you're outside, where are you? What's in front of you?

  • 11:26:55

    FOWLERYou're looking straight north across a body of water and towards mountains.

  • 11:26:59

    DONVANNo people around?

  • 11:26:59

    FOWLERTowards the North Pole. No, not usually. There is an airport there, so you can see it from the entrance. It is a glorious bit of scenery. It's just spectacular, otherworldly, awe-inspiring. I -- you know, the best days of my life are when I'm up there, and I'm in that kind of environment.

  • 11:27:18

    DONVANLet's bring in Sara from Washington. Sara, welcome to the Diane Rehm Show.

  • 11:27:24

    SARAHi, thanks for taking my call.

  • 11:27:27


  • 11:27:27

    SARAI have read a bit about seed banks. I was in a horticulture program quite a while ago. And one of the things that came up was that -- and I know you've talked about it's not a museum, but people have made the argument that some of the seeds become museum pieces because they're not subject -- they're stored for so many years, they're not subject to environmental conditions, stresses, et cetera, as they would be if they were growing out in the outdoors and soil.

  • 11:27:56

    SARAAnd so when -- you know, they're not as valuable than seed that might be collected from an actual plant that's growing out, you know, in the wild or in someone's garden. So I just wondered how you deal with that and also how many people actually take advantage of the seeds, use the seeds. I've read that they're somewhat underutilized, but perhaps that's not the case.

  • 11:28:21

    DONVANAll right, Sara, I'll let Cary answer those questions. Go ahead, Cary.

  • 11:28:23

    FOWLEROkay, sure. Well, I think it's important to realize that all seed banks and the seed vault itself, they're repositories of traits, and you don't expect any particular variety or genetic population, any sample, to be itself relevant 100 or 1,000 years from now. But you do expect the traits within to be relevant. And many of the varieties that we have in the seed vault are varieties that farmers used to grow but have given up growing for one reason or another. Maybe they weren't heat-tolerant, or they weren't resistant to a particular pest, but that doesn't mean that they don't have other values, which might be nutritional, taste, resistance to a different kind of pest.

  • 11:29:10

    FOWLERSo we're really trying to save that diversity, and of course there's no perfect way of doing that. There are always downsides and risk. Saving that diversity in the real world, out in people's gardens and farms, is pretty risky to do, as well. So we're doing the best we can with what we've got.

  • 11:29:26

    DONVANAnd Sara was also asking who has access to the bank.

  • 11:29:31

    FOWLERYeah, the bank is run like a safety deposit box. The depositing institutions will send their seeds up there. Generally it'll be a backup copy of what they have, always it'll be a backup copy of what they have. So if they lose a particular sample, or something catastrophic happens to their facility, they can -- they can get their copy back, and we've avoided extinction.

  • 11:29:54

    FOWLERBut it's not a place, for many different reasons, where someone appears and knocks on the door and gets a seed sample. The few -- if you're a researcher, and you want a seed sample, you don't go to the North Pole, you go to the depositing institution directly.

  • 11:30:09

    DONVANWe have a tweet from David, who asks, what about GMO seeds? Are they considered worth saving, too, and are they considered, quote-unquote, natural?

  • 11:30:15

    FOWLERWell, we don't have any GMO seeds in the seed vault, and the simple reason for that is that there are Norwegian regulations, which would proscribe that. So we can't do that.

  • 11:30:28

    DONVANYou mean the Norwegians don't allow the import of...

  • 11:30:28

    FOWLERThey don't allow the import of, and storage in a facility such as the seed vault. So we simply don't have any.

  • 11:30:34

    DONVANOkay, so in that case the obstacle is the Norwegian law on GMO.

  • 11:30:37


  • 11:30:38

    DONVANDo you otherwise think that GMO seeds would belong there?

  • 11:30:40

    FOWLERI -- you know, I don't make any -- in terms of conservation, I don't make any value judgments about what good diversity is or what bad diversity is. So I just say, well, let's -- let's store it, and let's leave it to future generations to figure that out. Of course it wouldn't harm -- it wouldn't be harmful to have it up there, but on the other hand there's very little diversity in GMOs that we don't have in other forms, in more traditional forms in the seed vault itself. So it doesn't bother me one way or the other.

  • 11:31:10

    DONVANLet's bring in Bernadine from Cincinnati, Ohio. Bernadine, welcome to the Diane Rehm Show.

  • 11:31:15

    BERNADINEHi, thank you so much for talking about this issue and for all the technology that you're bringing to save our plant genetic diversity. I have a feeling you might know about seed exchange and seed savers and their gardens that they have. For decades they've been saving seeds, and the -- I have a personal interest, of course, because my family tomatoes from Eastern Kentucky are in that garden.

  • 11:31:45

    BERNADINENow we put them on the seed exchange catalog. I mean, this has been going on for decades, where people exchange seeds, and there's two in America, Seed Exchange, I believe, and Seed Savers. And people have send in their seeds and told the story of the seeds. And my family's -- they -- you have to certify three generations have been growing in your family's gardens. And I collect it because the -- the lives of those people in Eastern Kentucky are changing, and the gardens are changing, and the vegetables and the crops are changing, and I was so glad I was able to save my family's seeds.

  • 11:32:25

    BERNADINEAnd we sent them in for exchange, and people exchanged and bought them. You can buy them from all over the country. And then finally they gave me a notice that they were going to grow them in the Seed Savers garden.

  • 11:32:36

    DONVANWell Bernadine, let me let Cary respond to that. But first, I want to say I'm John Donvan, and you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show."

  • 11:32:45

    FOWLERWell, I love amateur efforts for conserving diversity, and I really love the Seed Savers Exchange that you can find at And there are other organizations, like the Temperate Orchard Conservancy out on the West Coast that are involved in conserving these heirloom varieties. Seed Savers Exchange, by the way, is an organization that's duplicated its collection up in Svalbard. So there are some hundreds of varieties from that nonprofit organization that are up near the North Pole right now.

  • 11:33:14

    DONVANThanks for that call, Bernadine, thanks for the question and the story. We have a tweet from Christian, who asks, can regular people contribute to this seed vault? I think that Christian means people who aren't specialists or scientists. And second question, what is your favorite seed in the vault?

  • 11:33:33

    FOWLEROkay, well, regular people can't contribute, unfortunately, at least not directly because we -- we hold the backup. We're the insurance policy for institutions holding collections. And at a certain point, you know, all seeds will lose their viability. So what happens, our management plan is that as that happens, the depositing institutions will grow their seed, multiply it and send us fresh copies. So we'll -- so it's not a time capsule. We'll always be getting new and additional seed up there.

  • 11:34:09

    FOWLERHaving said that, I will tell you that seed of many of the species up there can be conserved for a long, long time. So if you look at some of the grains that we have, wheat and barley and rice, we're talking about a time span of 1,000 to 2,000 years, sorghum over 19,000 years. So we may not have to get replenished supplies for quite a while, but sooner or later something like that happens, and you can't go back to an individual, obviously, for that purpose.

  • 11:34:35

    DONVANSeeds are amazing things in that way. Cary, do you consider a seed to be alive?

  • 11:34:40

    FOWLERSure, it is.

  • 11:34:43

    DONVANIt's a living form?

  • 11:34:44


  • 11:34:46

    DONVANIt's a living form that's asleep for the time being or resting?

  • 11:34:47

    FOWLERYeah, you could say that, and it's also a history of everything that that plant, going back into the past, has encountered. Think of it in this way. Think that that seed or that variety has successfully navigated all kinds of environments and been affected by human culture. It's had a long, unbroken series of successes, and here it is in our hands. And it also represents everything that agriculture can be in the future, and that's why we want to preserve it.

  • 11:35:20

    DONVANIn addition to being alive, it's also a kind of a set of building instructions, and it's a construction engineer, in a way, isn't it?

  • 11:35:27

    FOWLERIt is. It's -- and I think when I walk into the seed vault, I really feel humbled because this is -- these varieties, this diversity is a product of not just plant evolution but also human cultures. We are intimately connected with these varieties. We've selected them for certain traits and certain tastes and appearance and such. And so our own history is very much bound up with these -- with these seeds.

  • 11:35:57

    DONVANAnd so which are the seeds that get you excited when you're in the vault?

  • 11:35:59

    FOWLEROkay, I do have a favorite one.

  • 11:36:02


  • 11:36:02

    FOWLERAnd I'm growing about 50 varieties of it in my garden back home, but -- and it's...

  • 11:36:08

    DONVANThis had better not be the marijuana seeds.

  • 11:36:08

    FOWLERNo. It is a seed called grass pea or Lathyrus. Nobody grows it in the United States. It's a legume. It has a really interesting story. It's a legume. It fixes nitrogen, it enriches the soil, it doesn't really need fertilizer. It's the most drought-tolerant and highest protein legume that there is. It has a problem. It's grown as a food and an important food in places like Ethiopia and Somalia, India, Bangladesh, but it has a problem. It has a neurotoxin.

  • 11:36:44

    FOWLERAnd so if you eat that crop as your primary or let's say exclusive source of food for a month or two, and you would only do that, of course, if you were incredibly poor, and there were crop failures, and your country is in the midst of a famine, but if you did that, you would become permanently paralyzed because of the neurotoxin.

  • 11:37:02


  • 11:37:02

    FOWLERSo what a number of researchers at an institute called the International Center for Agricultural Research in Dry Areas, ICARDA, are doing is they're using the diversity to find variants of that crop that have less toxin, and they're breeding those low-toxin varieties so that we can produce a crop that's safe for farmers.

  • 11:37:24

    DONVANMore with Cary Fowler and more of your questions and comments right after the break. I'm John Donvan, you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show."

  • 11:40:01

    DONVANWelcome back. I'm John Donvan, sitting in for Diane Rehm. We're talking with Cary Fowler. He is the founder of the Global Seed Vault. And author of the book, "Seeds on Ice," which is a book about probably the most fascinating and inspiring hole in the ground you're ever gonna hear discussed on the radio. I want to go to some of the -- more of the tweets and calls that are coming in. This one comes from John. It's an email actually. And he asks, "Have seeds ever been withdrawn from the seed vault? Under what conditions and circumstances?"

  • 11:40:31

    FOWLERThere's just been one withdrawal. And in a way, you know, the seed vault is an insurance policy. So like every other insurance policy, health insurance, car insurance, you never want to use it. But it's there if you need it. And we've had one withdrawal. And it was from an international institution based just outside of Aleppo, Syria. So when Arab Spring first started, I got on the phone with the director of that institution.

  • 11:40:59

    FOWLERAnd it -- that institution had a major collection of wheat, barley, lentils, chickpea and my little crop, grass pea. And particularly that institution was breeding varieties for drought tolerance and such for that area. So it's a -- for that region. So it's an incredibly institution. ICARDA is the name. And I spoke with the director of the institute and I said, you know, we ought to get a duplicate copy of your seeds up to Svalbard.

  • 11:41:29

    FOWLERAnd I remember him saying that, well, yeah, Cary. But, you know, this Arab Spring thing, it's not really going to go very far. And it'll certainly never get to Syria because things are clamped down too tightly here in Syria. I said…

  • 11:41:43

    DONVANSo we're talking about five years ago.

  • 11:41:44


  • 11:41:45

    DONVANJust, you know, before everything happened.

  • 11:41:46

    FOWLERYes. And I said, well, yeah, you're probably right. But just in case. And he said, yeah, just in case. And I think we got the final shipment of seeds out over the border about two weeks before all hell broke loose there. So they had to relocate in Lebanon and Morocco, reestablish their research institute there. And of course they needed their seeds back. And they weren't going to Aleppo to get them.

  • 11:42:10

    DONVANDid they -- so they lost the seeds that were left behind in Aleppo?

  • 11:42:13

    FOWLERIt's not clear that they've lost them. But they certainly don't have access to it because of the fighting and such. And we don't really know exactly what's happened to those seeds in the previous gene bank there.

  • 11:42:25

    DONVANSo if they're gone or destroyed or lost, they were nevertheless backed up by your vault.

  • 11:42:30

    FOWLERExactly. So last September we sent I think 38,000 samples back to them. And what they'll do with those is they'll reestablish their breeding program. They'll multiply those seeds. They'll put them in their new seed bank. And they'll take a portion of them and they'll be highly motivated to send a portion back to Svalbard.

  • 11:42:51

    DONVANIt's such a great example of the kind of crisis that you had in mind when you set up this place.

  • 11:42:56

    FOWLERIt is. We weren't thinking of anything quite so dramatic, but, yes. I mean, in the past, that kind of a crisis would have been one of the largest extinction events of domesticated plant species in history. But it wasn't this time.

  • 11:43:13

    DONVANThere was another one you write about in the book, where you reproduced the painting of a pear.

  • 11:43:18


  • 11:43:19

    DONVANAnd the pear's gone.

  • 11:43:21

    FOWLERThat's right. Well, we've had so many stories. You know, Aldo Leopold, the great conservationist in the last century, said that conservationists live in a world of wounds. And sometimes you can go back to the old books. In this case, I went back to a book called, "The Pears of New York." A wonderful old book. And it described this pear variety, Ansault, as have -- as being characterized by the term buttery. As the book said, "Common in pear parlance." Rather more than any other kind of pear. And it's gone. It's extinct. So…

  • 11:43:57

    DONVANWhen was the book published?

  • 11:43:58

    FOWLERIn the early 1900s. So this was a pear variety that was a great delicacy in the 1800s.

  • 11:44:05

    DONVANIn the United States?

  • 11:44:06

    FOWLERYes. In the United States.

  • 11:44:07

    DONVANAnd there's a painting of it as well.

  • 11:44:08

    FOWLERAnd there's a color plate of it in this book. And so you can look at it, but you can't taste it anymore.

  • 11:44:13

    DONVANIt's gone.

  • 11:44:14

    FOWLERAnd I think there's something just tragic about that. And it's not just tragic from a genetic diversity standpoint, but in terms of our own cuisine and culture.

  • 11:44:27

    DONVANBut if you go back, say, let's go back 1,000 years and no one was sitting up banks for seeds. Even then, varieties were going extinct and coming into being and going extinct. Why is that any different from today? Why would you argue that there's a need to preserve diversity today, when the disappearance of varieties has been going on forever?

  • 11:44:53

    FOWLERWell, there are a couple of reasons for that. One is in modern agriculture we typically plant large swaths of land with a genetically uniform variety of whatever crop. And so with genetic uniformity, very often comes vulnerability to the next pest or disease. So there's a constant turnover of new varieties. And that's why you have to have a reservoir of traits. But in the old days, farmers didn't have genetically distinct varieties typically.

  • 11:45:24

    FOWLERThey had mixtures in their field. And they were content with allowing natural selection to take place. The first chapter of Charles Darwin's book is on the -- is on domesticated plants and animals. So there was that kind of slow improvement. But those varieties, while very locally adapted and had -- with -- and they have wonderful characteristics in a way, the local adaptation mean -- well, they are typically low in productivity. And with what's happening with weather or climate, crops that are locally adapted may be in trouble as local changes, in terms of weather conditions.

  • 11:46:04

    DONVANSo climate change is relevant?

  • 11:46:06

    FOWLERI think it's relevant. You know, I think we need to figure out how to talk civilly about that subject. I think the evidence, the data is rather overwhelming. But I know that other people -- some people would disagree. But in this field, the important thing to understand is that whether you think that there is climate change or global warming or whether you just think that there is by coincidence a lot of bad weather for farmers, the response, the solution in either case is to conserve diversity and employ it. And is to use it for breeding varieties that are more climate resilient.

  • 11:46:45


  • 11:46:45


  • 11:46:45

    DONVANLet's bring in Paul from Lakeville, Md. Paul, welcome to "The Diane Rehm Show."

  • 11:46:51

    PAULThank you. I just -- great topic. I've been involved in landscape conservations, reforestation and that sort of thing. And just started my own business to try to spread the word to homeowners. And I just wanted to -- if you could incorporate the -- answer the question of how important you feel it is to protect pollinators regionally.

  • 11:47:14

    PAULAnd anybody who wants to know more about that should probably check out a website called The Xerces Society. I don't know if you're familiar with them. They give you local native plants that support pollinators. And then my only other question is have you read the book, "The Sixth Extinction?" I want to read it, but I'm just thinking it'll be too darn depressing.

  • 11:47:37

    DONVANAll right. Thanks, Paul.

  • 11:47:40

    FOWLERWell, thank you. I'm an amateur beekeeper, so I'm pro-pollinator. I think that's a good thing. And I have to say that as you look at changing weather patterns, what you're seeing is that insects and diseases, unfortunately, are changing their natural range. They're on the march. And so in the future, even now frankly, we are beginning to see new assemblages of species growing together. And I think in the future our agricultural systems are -- it's going to introduce a fair amount of uncertainty into our agricultural systems. Because we don't know what kind of reactions all these species will have together because they're new assemblages. And again, that's a reason why I think we need to conserve this diversity in order to conserve options for us.

  • 11:48:33

    DONVANAnd the book he mentioned, "The Sixth Extinction?"

  • 11:48:36

    FOWLERYes. Yes.

  • 11:48:37

    DONVANHe says it's scary.

  • 11:48:40

    FOWLERWell, it is fairly scary.

  • 11:48:41

    DONVANHave you read it?

  • 11:48:42

    FOWLERI've read part of it, yeah.

  • 11:48:44

    DONVANWe have an email from Marty who asks, "What are the risks to the seed vault from global warming?" So not to agriculture but to the seed vault itself.

  • 11:48:52

    FOWLERTo the seed vault itself. Well, I don't think we're going to escape warming temperatures. We've already seen warming temperatures up in Svalbard. But our task is to conserve those seeds, provide a safe place for them and also a cold place. And cold is relative. So at the location that we've -- we have the seed vault inside the mountain, we -- our projections are that it will remain below freezing, in the worst case scenario, 200 years from now.

  • 11:49:26

    FOWLERBut let's say it -- the temperature rises a couple of degrees. Well, we're still going to have to cool it down to minus 3, minus 4 Fahrenheit. So we'll simply do that from maybe 20 or 25 degrees Fahrenheit, rather than 20 -- well, maybe it'll be a little bit warmer and we'll have to employ a little bit more cooling. But it's all relative. And there wouldn't be any other place on Earth that we would escape that. So there we are.

  • 11:49:57

    DONVANLet's bring in Denise from Tampa, Fla. Hi, Denise. Welcome to "The Diane Rehm Show."

  • 11:50:02

    DENISEThanks. Good morning. I was interested in your comment about the potato blight fungus, which led to the famine in Ireland. And within the past couple of years, this gentleman wrote a book. And conversely it was the enthusiasm about improving agricultural practice and fertilizers which led to this. He said that the islands off Peru and Chile in Latin America, had all these vast reserves of guano, which of course is this bird excrement building up over thousands of years. And they loaded this into ships by these workers who had a most awful, unpleasant task. And so this stuff came to Europe.

  • 11:50:45

    DENISENow, we said that this had an effect right through Europe, as far as Ukraine. Well, I thought, why is it that Ukraine and other parts of Europe didn't have this vast famine, as did Ireland. And it may be, as you had said, about the lack of biodiversity in Ireland. And may I say, I did live in Latin American in Ecuador. And I was astounded by the varieties of these native potatoes when you saw a market, you know, with purples and blues and red outer coverings. And, of course, this is a great source of -- the recipe for that particular crop.

  • 11:51:21

    DONVANAll right, Denise. I'm gonna just jump in to say, first of all, thank you for that vivid description of the shipment of the bird excrement, which was powerful, yet tasteful. And I actually want to give Cary a chance to actually respond to your question. Was it the diversity of -- first of all, the suggestion is that it was the guano that caused the blight. But that the lack of diversity in Ireland's potato crop made it vulnerable.

  • 11:51:43

    FOWLERWell, yeah, certainly the lack of diversity made the crop vulnerable in Ireland. And there were problems with the same disease, Phytophthora, in other countries, in Norway, for instance. But I think it's a good example of how it's really impossible to tell the history of our own country or other countries, without reference back to some of these old stores. And to the movement of plants, such as the potato, native to the Andes, to Europe and North America.

  • 11:52:16

    DONVANI'm John Donvan and you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." Let's bring in Pete, from Inverness, Fla. Pete, welcome to "The Diane Rehm Show." How are you?

  • 11:52:27

    PETEThank you. This is a privilege. I am a board game designer. And I designed a game about the global seed vault. It depicts a terrorist attack on the vault…

  • 11:52:38

    FOWLEROh, no.

  • 11:52:39

    PETE…with the response of Canada, the European Union and Russia trying to take it back.

  • 11:52:44

    DONVANPete, how -- what inspired you to build a game around an attack on the Global Seed Vault?

  • 11:52:50

    PETEI saw a very interesting article on TV about the vault and I said, wow, that is a fascinating place. And I just wanted to design a game. I design games. It's kind of a hobby of mine. And I said I want to design a game around that place. And I thought a terrorists seizure of that to hold it hostage, essentially, to get whatever demands the terrorists might want, would be an interesting scenario.

  • 11:53:09

    DONVANWell, we're here fanning Cary, who's nearly fainting from this concept. Actually, he's smiling at it. What's your response to that, Cary?

  • 11:53:16

    FOWLERThere have been a few -- a couple of novels and some stories and cartoons and various things along this same line. This is the first I've heard about a game. I hope it wards off all the evil spirits.

  • 11:53:28

    DONVANThanks very much for your call, Pete. And let's bring in Bruce from Silk Hope, N.C. Bruce, welcome to the program.

  • 11:53:33

    BRUCEJohn, thanks for taking my call. Just two quick points. One, I wanted to thank NPR and "The Diane Rehm Show" in particular for contributing to scientific literacy and specifically ecological literacy, where those of us in the electorate, making us a much more informed population on issues like this. And secondly, just a hat tip to Cary. Probably 30 years ago he was actually kind enough to come into my high school classroom where I was teaching an ecology course.

  • 11:54:02

    BRUCEWe were both friends of the last Charles Jenner, at the University of North Carolina -- Chapel Hill. And he introduced me to Cary. And Cary was kind enough to come and talk about diversity many years ago.

  • 11:54:13

    DONVANWell, you've been doing this for a while then, it sounds like, Cary.

  • 11:54:15

    FOWLERI'm an old man.

  • 11:54:16

    DONVANThanks for your call, Bruce.

  • 11:54:18

    FOWLERThank you.

  • 11:54:18

    DONVANLet's bring in Mike from Ozark, Ark. Hi, Mike.

  • 11:54:22

    MIKE…taking my call. I've been saving seeds for a number of years in the mountains of the Ozarks. And I was wondering about the best way to store them. I usually bag them up as airtight in the freezer. And I keep my freezer around 0. And can you give me an idea of a time they would last?

  • 11:54:42

    FOWLERIt really depends on the species. But you're certainly gonna be good for a few years at that rate.

  • 11:54:49

    DONVANAll right. Thanks for your call, Mark -- Mike. We have an email from Kate. She's asking a somewhat similar question. "Is the viability of the stored seeds checked periodically? In other words, do you always know that they're gonna sprout when you need them?" And she says, "I imagine this differs from species to species." But what about that?

  • 11:55:08

    FOWLERIt does. And it's a good question. The depositing institutions will check the viability of their samples. And what we know is that in Svalbard, at the Global Seed Vault, we have conditions that are equal to or better than those of any of the depositing institutions, in terms of the storage quality. So we know that our seeds will deteriorate more slowly -- equal to or more slowly than the depositing institutions. And that's how we know what the health status is of our seeds and they know when to replenish their seed stocks.

  • 11:55:40

    FOWLERAnd some of these seed vault -- seed banks around the world are really fantastic institutions. I want to, you know, tip my hat to the National Seed Bank in the United States in Fort Collins. Great facility. And our government has really done a good job of preserving the diversity that we have. And US Agency for International Development has a great program called Feed the Future, which partners American universities with universities overseas to develop new seed varieties. Fantastic effort on that.

  • 11:56:19

    DONVANAnd, Cary, in doing this sort of rescue job on the world's crops, diversity, what portion of the overall world crop diversity is being preserved up there in the vault?

  • 11:56:32

    FOWLERThat's hard to say because we've never really had a headcount on what existed out there in the first place. But I think that we have the bulk of diversity of our major crops. What we're missing are a few particular collections and we certainly could do a better job of bringing in more diversity of the minor crops. But of the major cereal grains, we have most of it.

  • 11:56:58

    DONVANYou're pretty confident on that.

  • 11:57:00


  • 11:57:00

    DONVANAll right. Well, it's been great talking to you. And now it's wonderful to know that there's a game that you can play out there, which -- in which you can stand up and protect the Global Seed Vault.

  • 11:57:07

    FOWLERI just hope we don't lose that game.

  • 11:57:10

    DONVANI want to thank Cary Fowler for a fascinating conversation on the topic of the seeds in the side of the mountain in Norway and why that matters. And to (unintelligible) Museum 'cause I think a lot of us would love to go see it. But the book is, "Seeds on Ice." Plenty of beautiful photographs of the vault itself. And also the region in which it resides. Thank you. I'm John Donvan, the moderator of "Intelligence Squared US Debates." I've been sitting in for Diane Rehm. And I want to say to you, thank you for listening.

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